Wave Goodbye to the Pitfalls of Presenteeism

The US Department of Labor says that the average American takes eight days off every year, meaning workers gift thousands of dollars of unused vacation time to their employers annually. But why?

Part of the issue is presenteeism – which plagues corporate America and, at the last calculation, costs the country $150 billion a year. This estimate attributed lost productivity due to poor health conditions of employees who still came to work – but did not take into account other effects – such as how presenteeism can also affect company culture, worker retention, and talent attraction.

The basic definition of presenteeism is when an employee spends more time at work than is required – including if they are unwell. A report from NPR, Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health found over half of Americans go to work when they are sick.

Deadlines are feared, having too many actions to return to, and expectations that employees must put work before their own health. For many workers, presenteeism is engrained in company culture. And it’s a problem many industries are grappling with as they increase flexible working policies that improve work life balances.

Companies must take the necessary actions to combat this issue, with three steps to consider below:

Step one: Addressing the root causes

Organizations should first take steps to address the root causes of poor physical and mental health within their workforce by offering comprehensive benefits packages. To have the greatest impact, these should include wellbeing support through a holistic benefits package such as wellness initiatives/allowances, access to mental health resources, massage or acupuncture sessions, and nutritionist sessions that support employees’ physical and mental health.

Additionally, technology is essential for HR and benefits teams to counter presenteeism. As well as offering sophisticated analysis that enables HR to track the popularity (and, therefore, success) of any company initiatives over a period of time, benefits tech and wellness pots can make a more immediate and tangible impact by allowing employees to self-administer benefits to impact their day-to-day health and happiness. This opens up an endless list of options, for example this could include access to yoga classes, therapy sessions, or financial wellness training. This digital approach to benefits management not only also means employees can access their benefits whenever and wherever they want, but provides data back to employers on what benefits are being used (and therefore valued.)

Step two: Analyze company culture

Presenteeism is often a cultural issue entrenched in an organization by the behavior of the leadership team or company values that haven’t yet evolved. While most within a company will recognize change as necessary, direction and leadership must first come from management.

If workers see management and leadership teams taking time off when they’re sick or are in need of a rest, they’ll be far more likely to do the same. It sends a clear message that when somebody is ill, they too should take the time to recover and when work is done, it’s time to go home.

HR can also facilitate open discussions about the importance of wellbeing to help shift company culture by using listening exercises that demonstrate to the workforce the company cares. Furthermore, organizations can take polls and surveys to help address any gaps in company benefits packages that could enhance their employees’ wellbeing – there is no shortage of ways employers can try to make improvements in this area.

Step three: Tech is key

Technology has effectively allowed more employees to work from home or other remote locations. Remote work brings many benefits such as reduced stress by saving money and time on commuting. But with this comes a need for balance.

Employers must be clear to workers that when they are sick, they should not be sending emails or seen online. When they are ready and well enough to return to work, they will be recovered, rejuvenated, and more productive.

We have a lot of work to do to address and eliminate presenteeism. Companies need to start by looking at their culture and management structures to better understand how to lead by example. People should be made to feel comfortable to take time off when they’re physically or mentally unwell without fearing piles of work or judgement from their manager – or their colleagues. This means actually taking time off when rest is needed so they can recuperate, and not working remotely which should be actively discouraged by managers during sick leave.

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